How To Give A Great Rapid-Fire Talk

If you are unfamiliar with rapid-fire talks, they are are a presentation format in which speakers prepare a set number of slides which advance automatically at regular intervals to produce a short energetic presentation of definite length. See e.g., Ignite Talks and PechaKucha. They're tons of fun and a great way to pack a lot of content into a small space. We're big fans. In fact, every year we present our own take on rapid-fire talks (LIT Bits) as part of our annual legal innovation and technology conference.

The following is a collection of advice for giving a great rapid-fire talk, aimed at the constraints of our own LIT Bits (5 min and 20 slides).

  • Embrace the constraints. The fixed number of slides and set time make the planning easier. You know you have 20 slides. So break your talk into a 20-point outline.
  • Tell a story. People love narratives. In fact, here's a list of things people love. See Made to Stick.
  • "Memorize" your talk. This isn't as hard as it sounds once your realize why the slides are there. They're primarily prompts, reminders of what you want to say and visual encapsulations of same for your audience. You don't have to memorize a script, but you shouldn't be reading from notes. Again, this is where the slides come in handy, they're your outline, and you just riff off them.
  • Slides should be evocative. Slides are prompts, not vehicles for a data dump. Your talk is where the meat of your presentation lives. The slides are props. I like to use full-screen images with no text because, like a movie's sound track, images can help set an emotional tone in addition to signaling what's next. Some folks like to treat slides as icons. When I can, I go for visual metaphors. Protip, if you search Flickr for Creative Commons images, you can find a bunch of great stuff. See e.g., my rapid-fire deck from 2018's TIG Conference (including speakers notes and links to image credits). Just be sure to pick an appropriate license from the drop down menu.
  • Avoid text. This is good advice for a traditional slide deck, but in a rapid fire talk you really don't have time for this distraction. If there are words on the screen, people will read them. This means they will not be listening to you. The exception here is the use of single words or short phrases to signal where you are going or help the audience hold on to an idea. See e.g., The Interface is Everything (embedded here).
  • Practice. I think the primary reason rapid-fire talks tend to work is the fact that they force the presenters to practice. Those slides are going to move on their own. So you better be able to keep up. I suggest practicing as you plan to present. So if you are going to stand, stand. I also like practicing in front of a mirror. I set up my slide deck to auto advance and just go. Also, when you go through your presentation, you'll notice bits that work and don't. So you can use this time to tweak things.